This begins a post I didn’t think would exist, but here we are. After reading Lapsely & Westlake’s Film Theory, it became clear that Kubrick’s infamous Eyes Wide Shut held numerous possibilities for the field that most films couldn’t begin to contain. And as those authors strongly implied, this is really not a film about sex. I have found this fact eloquently confirmed in Tim Kreider’s article “Introducing Sociology: A Review of Eyes Wide Shut“, published in vol. 53, no. 3 of Film Quarterly. The article is also an excellent example of a film being read well. In fact, this entry seems somewhere between redundant and incomplete next to that one. Consider my sources cited.
It is always convenient when a film’s title actually holds a key to its meaning. In this case, the title points to the idea of the gaze as inherent to the film. One is not sure that the gaze is the primary theme, but it’s certainly important. It corresponds well to the opening shot. The shot frames, nay objectifies, Alice (Nicole Kidman) in a way that ought to make anyone self-conscious for watching. The subsequent shot of Bill (Tom Cruise) frames him in the same way, but instead of undressing, he is putting the final touches on dressing up. Later in the film, when the masked man tells Bill to remove his clothes, Bill is rendered aghast. After seeking out countless women throughout the film with the intent to dominate them sexually, Bill gawks at the suggestion that he remove his clothes. This early scene in the film looks ahead to that later one.
The early dialog between Bill and Alice establishes the motifs of gaze, power, and repression. She complains that he doesn’t look at her the way she likes. He flippantly tells her how “perfect” she looks without looking at her. Not long after, Victor (Sydney Pollack) greets Alice at the party by telling her how amazing she looks. While still preparing for the party in the bathroom, Alice uses the toilet and (later) applies deodorant in front of both Bill and the camera. Lapsley & Westlake present the possibility that this begins Alice’s (as the proverbial “Woman”) revenge against Bill (the proverbial “Man”) and his arrogant dominion over her. First she allows herself to be objectified and then revolts against this notion by displaying herself in all her ordinariness, the sort of ordinariness that a man like Bill almost can’t handle.
Kubrick establishes Bill as (what Freud and Lacan would identify as) the keeper of the phallus. In this instance, “phallus” refers almost completely to the symbol for power and only at times to the male instrument. That Alice is castrated (without power) is seen in the early scene already described and then again at the party. She dances with a man (not Bill) who dominates her not only in the dance, but in his attempts to persuade her to go upstairs with him. Her desire for him (her attempt to undo her castration) almost gets the best of her, creating an interesting situation in which Lacan’s notion of “lack” appears clearly in both parties. Alice’s lack is seen in her desire for the man; and vice versa. Alice’s resistance signifies her loyalty to Bill, which he in turn interprets as weakness. He has no concern over her faithfulness, because (in so many words) she needs him more than he needs her. After the party, when Alice confronts Bill on just this issue, Bill backpedals and insists that she need not worry over his faithfulness to her. All the while, however, Bill distinguishes between male and female natures. Women “need” men, while men simply are faithful to the women they love.
While Alice dances with the desiring man, Bill flirts and talks with two women nearby. The scene not only illustrates Bill’s repressed desire for something more than Alice, but it alludes to the rest of the film which has Bill pursuing never one woman, but multiple women. The rites at the mansion that Bill witnesses is the ultimate example of polygamous sexual relations. At one point in the earlier scene, the two women start to walk Bill somewhere, and he laughingly asks them where they are taking him. They say, “where the rainbow ends.” Here again the scene points directly ahead to the mansion when, first, one woman guides him through rooms and halls, and then another attempts to take Bill from her.
When Bill is interrupted and ushered upstairs, he encounters the character of Mandy for the first time. She is Victor’s liaison (apparently a prostitute) who has overdosed on a speedball, a shot of heroin and cocaine, with a dash of champagne. Here is the first instance of Bill using his credentials and profession as a physical to wield power and change a situation from one thing to another. The first sight of Mandy is disturbing and disquieting. Her nakedness seems not to phase Bill, but his flirtations only a few moments before remind the viewer that despite his professional status, her state has not gone unnoticed. Neither Bill nor Victor, who is also presents, acknowledges this fact. But in the scene’s closeups of Victor, the immediate background features a painting of a nude woman, which appears to wrap Victor in the shot. Cuts back to Alice during the scene reiterate Bill’s life apart from her and serve to contrast Alice’s resistance of temptation while Bill, through his status as “doctor,” has license to be with and to see women. A brief montage a little later shows Bill examining a woman in his office. Though a nurse is present (as he assures Alice), the fact can’t be ignored that he regularly interacts with women stripped of their vulnerabilities while he maintains the power position – not only dressed, but in doctor attire.
The gaze makes another explicit appearance following Bill and Alice’s return from the party before and after Bill approaches Alice in front of the mirror. The double-image of Alice and her entrancement on herself displays her lack and her willing framing of herself. As opposed to the film’s opening shot, here Alice’s front side is visible as she, once again, undresses. When Bill enters the picture, he comes as a predator toward Alice, the prey. For the first and only time in the film, Bill has some vulnerability on display, and he never glances toward the mirror to acknowledge them. Alice focuses on the reflection rather than on Bill. Meanwhile, a groovy song plays with the chorus, “They did a bad, bad thing…”
While smoking weed in bed, Bill and Alice have their revealing conversation about men and women. As with most of their talks in the film, their subject matter is exceedingly general. It’s been said that Stanley Kubrick never made a movie about people but about Man and the human condition. Eyes Wide Shut has been criticized for a lack of depth in its main characters, but Kubrick is using the characters to get to something much bigger. Though their discussion begins with Alice questioning Bill about the two women at the party, they quickly move on to the big picture as Bill implies to Alice that men are more interested in sex than women. Alice realizes that Bill isn’t worried that she would ever betray him, another picture of Bill’s security in his own position of power over her. Seeing an opportunity to usurp his power, Alice reveals Bill’s lack by confessing her own fantasies of infidelity. She callously tells Bill of the naval officer whom she desired, and the rest of the film has Bill visualizing their never-actually-happened affair in between attempts to reassert his power both over Alice and the proverbial Woman. As Bill and Alice talk in the bedroom, they flirt and laugh, creating a mood that contradicts the nature of what they’re discussing. Kreider points out that this is a recurring element in Kubrick’s films. Think of “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” from Dr. Strangelove and “I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m just gonna bash your brains in!” from The Shining. Victor makes a similar statement about Mandy toward the end of Eyes Wide Shut when he says that she wasn’t killed, she just “got her brains f—ed out.”
When Bill goes on his first house call in the film, he is greeted by the first of a number of women who strongly resemble Alice in appearance. Another such woman is the prostitute’s rooommate that Bill meets on his second visit to her apartment. Kreider notes that her name, Sally, is an aural anagram of “Alice.” Bill’s impression that polygamy can work for him as a reassertion of his power is not only inherently flawed, but it reveals his own repressed lack (of fulfillment). Not only is Alice’s hypothetical affair constantly on his mind, but nearly every woman he encounters takes him back to her.
The sexuality in the film, in all its forms, seems to show Bill’s lack of satisfaction wherever he looks. Nearly every woman he desires comes to an unhappy end. Mandy’s death is arguably attributable to him. And though Domino the prostitute did not contract HIV from him, she surely contracted it from someone not unlike him. Bill is mistaken by a group of youths as a homosexual, and the hotel clerk possibly makes the same mistake. The orgy is the ultimate example of unfulfilled desire exploding into a large-scale attempt at acquiring the phallus/instrument-of-power. The sexual ambiguity in the film corresponds with Bill’s desires, which he cannot even identify and does not know how to satiate. Lapsley and Westlake offer the possibility that Bill stands for a sexually ambiguous character seeking satisfaction but not finding it.
More ambiguous than the film’s sexuality is its narrative. Victor’s explanation of what happened and what didn’t only satisfies if one blindly trusts Victor, who has everything to gain by lying to Bill. Kreider’s essay identifies the three times in the pool room that Victor proposes that he and Bill talk to each other plainly. The pool table itself, blood red in color, seems to point not only to the orgy sequence but to death, and the implication that Victor is lying. Much of what he says seems melodramatic even compared to the bizarreness of what Bill witnessed at the mansion. Bill’s final conversation with Alice likewise leaves a thematic uncertainty. While in a toy store with their daughter, Bill asks Alice what they should do. “Be grateful,” she says. Again, their generalities do less to solve their personal problems than to reveal the macro-problem of relationships, especially marriages. As one of the few scenes in the film when she is wearing glasses, Alice is possibly seeing things more clearly than she naturally would. That they are situated in a toy store is reminiscent of 2001, when the narrative returns to a childlike state, connecting the conclusion with the outset. But unlike 2001, Bill and Alice have not arrived at the next stage of their evolution. On the contrary, though they have moved ahead in the sense that they see each other more clearly for who they are, and Alice wields more power than she ever has, her suggestion as to what they now must do reeks of the lack that the rest of the film has pictured. Bill’s quest for fulfillment has now turned, ever so slightly, to become Alice’s. As the holder of the phallus, she is now “free,” although quite imprisoned, to pursue gratification using Bill as a tool. The film’s conclusion implies less of a resolution and more of a perpetuation of the same problem, unsolved. When their eyes should be finally wide open, they’re still decidedly shut.